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If Marco Polo were alive today, what tales would he tell about China and Tibet?

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In 1298, Marco Polo told astonishing stories about a marvellous land he called Cathay, modern-day China which was ruled by the Yuan dynasty. During his extraordinary journey, Marco Polo also visited Tibet, which was also under the Yuan dynasty. He was the first Westerner to refer to Tibet as a part of China, and nobody objected. Marco Polo had no idea how his observations might change the face of the globe.

Since those days, world events have gathered speed. Columbus discovered America, at first believing it was Asia; disaffected and persecuted Europeans began to populate the shores of the new continent, squeezing further inland the indigenous population. Empire builders sought new colonies ever further afield. New lands to conquer, new resources to appropriate, new riches to seize…

Societies were subjected to similar upheavals. Old forms of exploitation were reinvented, with slavery giving way to feudal serfdom; ancient and new religious beliefs spread across the planet, to capitalism and communist ideologies divided the globe and its peoples.

Following the Second World War, the US saw in Tibet a religious patent that could be exploited against communism as an ongoing propaganda campaign. It started with an armed uprising in 1959 against the People’s Republic of China, followed by the exile of the 14th Dalai Lama in India and the establishment of the Government of Tibet in Exile ruling over about 100,000 Tibetan refugees settled mainly in northern India.

Ever since, China has considered all Tibet’s pro-independence movements as part of a strategic propaganda operation abetted by Western imperialists who want to destabilize China. This view was bolstered, for example, by the CIA‘s backing of Tibetan insurgencies during the 1950s and 1960s, the support of Western NGOs for the “pro-Tibet” riots of 2008 when China hosted the Olympic Games, and the continuing self-immolations by Tibetans and Buddhist monks promoted since 2009 by the Government of Tibet in Exile, praised as courageous by the 14th Dalai Lama – although he questioned their effectiveness – and glorified by NGOs advocating human rights for Tibet.

There have been intermittent expectations of formal negotiations between the principal parties to the Tibet issue, but their zero-sum view of Tibet’s political status, reciprocal accusations and mutual suspicion have been persistent barriers. The participation of other actors has also had an effect. Many foreign states acknowledge Tibet as a part of China, while none formally recognizes the Government of Tibet in Exile – also known as the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) – yet a number of them sustain the cause of the exiles in other ways. Thousands of supporters of Tibetan independence, encouraged by Western NGOs have also rallied to this cause, including members of the world’s parliaments, rights activists, actors, musicians, and ordinary converts to Tibetan Buddhism in the West.

In reality, communications on Tibet are persistently disseminated by the CTA, Western NGOs and the Chinese government as part of well-planned and organized propaganda campaigns serving contrasting geopolitical and military interests. China is in a particularly difficult position, since it is surrounded by topographical features that make it difficult for major armies to pass through. In the southwest there is Tibet: from a military point of view, it is a solid wall that has to be held. China has a fundamental security interest in retaining Tibet as well as an economic interest in its enormous natural resources, because Tibet is also the Chinese anchor in the Himalayas with its huge and still virtually untapped reservoir of minerals, metals, water and energy. From this perspective Tibet can be considered as a major Achilles’ heel for China.

In the context of decades of propaganda during and after the Cold War, serving the different geopolitical and military interests, the concept of Shangri-La is particularly important to our understanding of how Tibet is presented. Shangri-La is a fictional place described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by the British author James Hilton. Hilton describes it as a mystical, harmonious Himalayan valley, serenely guided by a monastery of lamas or spiritual masters. Shangri-La has evolved in the Western collective imagination into a modern surrogate of the lost Garden of Eden: a mythical utopia, a permanently happy land, isolated from the outside world, dedicated to the preservation of peace, spirituality and nature. It is an ideological fantasy representing the last refuge of Western societies from their present and historical sins of consumerism, atheism, capitalism and colonialism. The Shangri-La notion is the central constituent for manoeuvring popular opinion in the propagandistic exploitation of the collective imagination in Western countries.

The narrative of the Tibetan Government in Exile

Leaders of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) have opportunistically adopted parts of the myth of a pre-1951 Shangri-La in Tibet to promote a theocracy, from which the rulers gain legitimacy and to whose members secular Tibetans should pay obeisance, rather than being controlled by them. In promoting this idea, they use only that part of the Western idealization of Tibet, as Shangri-La, that is useful in legitimizing their status in the eyes of the West, however cementing their de-facto theocratic power within the exiled diaspora.

Because of the need for Western support of the exiled government and the significant role played by externally-based NGOs supporting Tibetan independence, Western hegemony is accepted in the diaspora’s discourses concerning Tibet and the Tibetan identity. A strategic essentialism that simplifies Tibetan identities for Westerners in the context of Shangri-La also impacts the self-identities of exiled Tibetans, many of whom accept Westernized notions of the Tibetan identity. Thus, although a modern sense of nationhood was absent in pre-1951 Tibet, CTA representations cast Tibetan nationhood as an historical reality. To gain legitimacy in the West, democratizing elements have been added to self-governance in exile, and the vocabulary of human rights, development, environmental protection, and so forth has been deployed by the CTA and supported by Western NGOs. Representations that directly fulfil the established Western image of Tibetans as inherently spiritual and peaceful have been especially prominent, forged by the personification of this utopia in the figure of the 14th Dalai Lama as a symbolic icon.

In reality, spirituality and sovereignty are linked through Tibet’s traditional system of theocratic government, in which politics and religion were tightly knit. Many exiled government officials continue promoting this system as ideal for Tibet and as an alternative to the atheistic Communist system of China. On the other hand, China has over the last three decades relaxed draconian and brutal Mao-era rules, by opening the door to private sector capitalism and by allowing individuals to practice a religion of their choice. There are now almost three times as many Buddhists in China as there are Communist Party members – there are 90 million members of Communist Party of China, some 250 million Buddhists and 200,000 registered Buddhist monks.

While the Chinese government’s approach to Buddhism has been liberal, it clearly takes the religion’s influence seriously, given its importance in Chinese society. The Chinese government is also acutely sensitive to the possibility of what it sees as external interference, especially on the delicate subject of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism.

A particularly divisive issue for the Buddhist community, both within Tibet and in the exiled communities is devotion to the Dorje Shugden deity, a 400-year old practice that began in the 17th century and has become a major tradition in Tibetan Buddhism. At the origin of the controversy lies a de facto ban on the religious practice issued by the 14th Dalai Lama decades ago. The CTA sees the religious practice of Dorje Shugden as a competing and heretical movement that may undermine their notion of the spiritual leadership of the 14th Dalai Lama inside Tibet and among Tibetan Buddhists.

The de-facto ban issued by the 14th Dalai Lama has generated considerable social tension and division in the diaspora, as well as in Tibetan society within China, leading the Chinese government to consider the Dorje Shugden controversy an important front for undermining what it says are efforts promoted by the 14th Dalai Lama aimed at destabilizing China. The religious hostility has been fed by considerable propaganda and counterpropaganda efforts during the last two decades and it is still an open battlefield that may escalate at any time. In historical terms, the implications could be reminiscent of Martin Luther’s reformation of Christianity centuries ago.

Significantly sensitive are the methodical efforts of the exiled government to silence opposing voices in the controversy, using systematic defamation and coercive methods, including the use of modern disinformation means like coordinated troll campaigns on social media and fake news campaigns. Such methods seem out of place in the peaceful Shangri-La narrative that is usually promoted, but rather more suited to an atmosphere of historical crisis like the period of the Inquisition. Additionally, it has been continuously observed that Dorje Shugden followers, monks and monasteries in Tibet and abroad are portrayed as heretic, demonic and sectarian, and are branded as Chinese Communist Party supporters or Chinese spies by most NGOs advocating in western countries for the exiled Government’s goals.

 

The role of the Western human rights NGOs

The Western NGOs present pre-1951 Tibet as Shangri-La in a way that serves to reinforce Tibet’s claim for sovereignty in the international community by capitalizing on the yearnings of Western activists for a lost social and ecological harmony. For them China is demonized as an evil force which invaded Tibet in 1951, destroying a previously harmonious, peaceful, ecological and spiritual society. While the 14th Dalai Lama has stated that “all Tibetans want more prosperity, more material development”, those material developments realized by China in contemporary Tibet are seen by the Western NGOs as an immoral cultural regression and a mean of implementing brutal oppression which primarily benefits the Chinese state and Han migrants in Tibet.

The discussion on human rights has been added and elaborated by the exiles and their NGO supporters and has a close fit with similar concerns emerging in international politics generally. While exiled critics see a human rights strategy as detracting from a focus on Tibet’s lack of independence, Chinese officials regard it as the heart of the exiles’ campaign to internationalize the Tibet issue. However, the expression of the Tibet issue as a human rights problem – the mainstay of the exiled Government’s strategy since the mid-1980s – has garnered support from across the political spectrum and provides the exiled Government and their supporting NGOs with a visibility in global politics they would not otherwise have. It stands, moreover, as a challenge to the forced dichotomy of the real versus the ideal and the hegemony of realism in politics generally.

In the last two decades, a statistical table of causalities among Tibetans from 1951 through the 1970s has been widely circulated by Western NGOs. Its total of 1.2 million deaths is based solely on unconfirmed refugee estimates, but is cited often by Western politicians and media. Such figures are characterized by unsubstantiated assertions and improbabilities criticised also by established NGOs advocating for Tibetan independence: for example the head of the Free Tibet Campaign NGO based in UK, examined the refugee interview documents and found large-scale duplications.

The official 1953 census recorded the entire population residing in Tibet at 1.3 million. Other census counts put the population within Tibet at the time at about two million. If the Chinese killed 1.2 million in the early 1960s then almost all of Tibet would have been depopulated, transformed into a killing field dotted with death camps and mass graves of which no evidence exists. Other demographic studies show that, as claimed, battle deaths would have been several times the ratio for the main belligerents in the two World Wars; alleged prison deaths would have required that one-tenth of all Tibetans were imprisoned during each year of a three-decade-long period.

While there were unquestionably substantial causalities in Tibet due to violent actions of the Chinese in the Mao era, as there were everywhere in China, the spread of misleading statistics regarding Tibet seems a clear effort to manipulate public perceptions about the real situation.

While the US has formally agreed that Tibet is an integral part of China, its Congress has nonetheless politically and financially supported the Tibetan independence movement driven by the NGOs and the exiled Government. So did the Nobel Prize Committee when it presented the peace award to the 14th Dalai Lama in 1989. Such recognitions and support ignore Chinese contributions to economic development in Tibet: the welfare policy adopted by the central government of China since the 1980s has markedly improved the life of the average Tibetan, and religious freedom has been restored.

Instead of praising the efforts of the Chinese government, the US Congress has criticized any progress made as an attempt to erase Tibetan culture, defining such a process as “cultural genocide”. This terminology has been widely exploited by the NGOs in their propaganda effort since the end of the 1980s, even after several failed attempts to apply the term of “genocide”, whose adequacy has been largely contested in the post-Mao era.

Of particular importance is one of the main propaganda tools used by the NGOs and the CTA to generate media attention and political discussion: the campaign of self-immolation in protest against Chinese rule in Tibet. This campaign has intensified since 2009, but has its roots in a few isolated cases that began around 1998 outside Tibet.

The NGOs state that self-immolation acts of Tibetans are an affirmation of the Tibetan identity in the face of “cultural genocide”. This proclamation however disregards the fact that suicide is forbidden in Buddhism. The campaign is heavily exploited around the world. In some cases acts of self-immolation are even used to promote fundraising activities, and particularly in the US, to obtain governmental subsidies, with wide support from cultural exponents like Hollywood actors or famous musicians.

Only very few of Tibet’s Buddhist clerics or exponents of the human rights community have dared to speak out in Western countries against glorifying, praising and promoting acts of self-immolation for political gain. When asking exponents of the NGOs about the justification for this practice, the answer is always evasive, with vague references to obscure roots of self-immolation traditions in the Tibetan culture.

A trilingual (Tibetan – Chinese- English) sign above the entrance to a small café in Nyalam Town, Tibet, 1993

The linking of the Tibet issue to human rights has been traced to the decision of the 14th Dalai Lama and the exiled government to internationalize in the late 1980s. The foundation of the human rights position is the principle of nonviolence, an important aspect of the public face of the exiled government, and fundamental to its policies and its exploitation of the Shangri-La myth. This has facilitated a seamless incorporation of a human rights consciousness into the approach of supportive NGOs, while simultaneously making it plausible and credible to vast popular audiences, especially to non-Tibetan observers in the West.

Human rights and other transnational issues such as the environment have attracted consent for marginalized identity groups across the globe, popularizing their political concerns and aspirations. Popular movements that pivot on “rights” challenge not only state authority, but more recently, the authority of multinational corporations as well. The effect is that many activists have been mobilized to sympathize with the NGOs advocating for Tibetan independence.

Such activists usually have different ideologies but shares principles close to the Shangri-La utopia, like for example anti-globalists or anarchists, but also ecologists or socialists or vegans… In reality, the concept of human rights diplomacy itself implies the corruption of human rights as an ideal; it is a defective concept from the standpoint of idealists, because it reflects the imperfect fit between their goals and national, political and military hegemonies. It also reflects the gap between popular, state and geo-political interests, particularly when applied with double standards. In the ideal world, rights should be above interests, but in the “real” world, they are merely ideals.

Worldwide there are about a thousand associations, foundations or charity organisations that revolve around the subjects of Tibetan independence, human rights for Tibet or the 14th Dalai Lama. A complete overview has not been established yet. However, the following NGOs (some registered as charities, some as foundations) play a crucial role in this discussion:

INTERNATIONAL CAMPAIGN FOR TIBET is an NGO (website savetibet.org), based in Washington, US. It is endowed with a 4 million USD annual budget and supports the goals of the 14th Dalai Lama and the CTA. The NGO says it promotes human rights and democratic freedom in Tibet and is active in lobbying US Congressional committees. It networks with other exiled Chinese democracy NGOs, promotes news coverage of issues in Tibet, like for example self-immolation, “cultural genocide” or anti-Dorje Shugden campaigns. Additionally it publishes two newsletters, the Tibet Press Watch and Tibetan Environment & Development News, and speaks to academics, journalists, and civic and community groups. Its main public exponent is the actor Richard Gere.

TIBET HOUSE (aka Tibet House US Cultural Center of H. H. the Dalai Lama, website tibethouse.us) was founded in 1987 by Columbia University professor Robert Thurman (father of actress Uma Thurman), actor Richard Gere and modern composer Philip Glass (among others) at the behest of the 14th Dalai Lama. It operated initially only in New York. The organisation now has affiliates in India, Mexico, Germany, Spain, the UK and Russia. Besides the preservation of the Tibetan culture, the organisation is active in supporting the political views of the 14th Dalai Lama and is very active in propaganda against Chinese rule in Tibet and China. In the US it has annual revenue of 2.5 million USD and accumulated assets of 6.5 million USD.

FREE TIBET (website freetibet.org) is a small NGO based in London, UK with an annual budget of 500,000 USD. In spite of its small budget the NGO has a strong online presence in social media. The group’s political views are aligned with those propagated by the CTA.

STUDENTS FOR A FREE TIBET is an NGO based in New York, US with a declared annual budget of 700,000 USD. The NGO says it is a network of 35’000 students working toward social justice and freedom in Tibet. Students for a Free Tibet educates young people propagating a message of Tibetan independence and works on translating that awareness into action through political, economic, and social campaigns. Students for a Free Tibet say they recognize the legal and historical status of Tibet as an independent country. This NGO was the main organizer of Tibetan protesters who disrupted the Summer Olympic ceremony, the Olympics torch relay in Beijing, 2008.

TIBET FUND (website tibetfund.org) is a foundation based in New York, US. The entity has an annual budget of about 6 million USD and cumulative assets of 8 million USD. The Tibet Fund, founded in 1981, is the principal fund raising organization working very close with the CTA. The fund partner is the organisation OFFICE OF TIBET, the official agency of the 14th Dalai Lama and the CTA based in Dharamsala, India. OFFICE OF TIBET is present in 13 countries, with bases in New Delhi, Kathmandu, Geneva, New York, Tokyo, London, Paris, Moscow, Brussels, Canberra, Pretoria, Taipei and Budapest. They are in charge of bilateral relations with different countries as well as with European Union institutions and the United Nations Organisation. The organisations have several substructures registered as Foundations in the US and abroad, like for example the OFFICE OF TIBET US or the TIBETAN COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT FUND INC. The OFFICE OF TIBET US also has a managerial function with respect to the current president of the CTA, Dr. Lobsang Sangay, who is a US citizen living in Boston.

THE DALAI LAMA TRUST (websites dalailama.com, dalailamatrust.org) is the foundation of the 14th Dalai Lama based in New York and India which administers the royalties and revenues from his intellectual properties and public events. It was filed in 2009 and in the US the foundation has annual revenues of 2 million USD with accumulated assets of 7 million USD. The trust has several substructures registered as foundations in the US and India and possibly abroad. The total assets or revenue of all structures is not known at present.

INDEPENDENT TIBET NETWORK (formerly CAMPAIGN FREE TIBET) is today a rather obscure network of activists propagating radical separatist political views (called “rangzen”) on Tibetan independence. Its website is tibettruth.com. Formed in 1988 it was a lobbying network which campaigned for justice, human rights and independence for Tibet and East Turkestan. The NGO is today linked to a partner organisation called RANGZEN ALLIANCE, registered in New York and led by Tibetan separatists. The political views of both organisations are presently close to anarchism and against the theocracy of the lamas. They are clear opponents to the CTA, which they consider unsuited to true Tibetan independence. The organisation INDEPENDENT TIBET NETWORK appeared to be originally registered in London and had possible links to the UK intelligence services. Today it has links to the Anonymous hacking group. INDEPENDENT TIBET NETWORK was very active in the 1990s, forging the notion of “cultural genocide” and birth control issues in Tibet. Since 2008, partnering with RANGZEN ALLIANCE, it also glorifies the self-immolation campaigns in Tibet.

TIBETAN CENTER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY (website tchrd.org) is an NGO based in Dharamsala, India, closely working with the CTA, also based in Dharamsala. The NGO says it investigates human rights issues in Tibet and amongst Tibetan minorities throughout China. Its budget is unknown. The main focus of the NGO is the coverage of issues in Tibet, like for example self-immolation, political prisoners in China and “cultural genocide”.

The response of the Chinese Government

The Chinese government portrays pre-1951 Tibet not as Shangri-La but as a feudal house of horrors, among the darkest and most backward regions in the world, and one of the regions where human rights violations were most serious. For them the mission in contemporary Tibet is considered as fulfilling a long-term civilizing assignment.

Before the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1951, the region was ruled by a theocracy and had a social hierarchy similar to pre-feudal times. Tibet was characterized by a form of institutionalized inequality that can be called serfdom: an ancient form of slavery preceding the development of the feudal system. It existed in Tibet until 1959. Exploitation was not through land-rent like in the Middle Ages in Europe but through enslavement to the aristocrats, clerics or manor owners. In return for working the land, the slaves were provided with minimal lodging, clothing and food. This form of slavery was finally abolished in Tibet only in 1959. Until that year, when China cracked down on Tibetan rebels and the 14th Dalai Lama fled to northern India, around 98% of the population was enslaved in serfdom. For example, the Drepung monastery, on the outskirts of Lhasa, was one of the world’s largest landowners with 185 manors, 25’000 serfs, 300 pastures, and 16’000 herdsmen. High-ranking lamas and secular landowners imposed crippling taxes, forced boys into monastic slavery and pilfered most of the country’s wealth – torturing disobedient serfs in a variety of brutal ways. In feudal Tibet, torture and mutilation – including gouging out eyes, pulling out tongues, severing hamstrings and amputation of limbs – were favoured punishments inflicted upon thieves, and runaway or obstructive serfs. Many materials and photos showing the limbs of serfs amputated by serf-owners in those years are kept in the Tibetan Social and Historical Relics Exhibition in the Beijing Ethnic Cultural Palace.

Earlier Western visitors to Tibet commented on the country’s theocratic despotism. In 1895, an Englishman, Dr. A. L. Waddell, wrote that the populace was under the “intolerable tyranny of monks” and the devil superstitions they had fashioned to terrorize the people. In 1904, the English traveller and writer Perceval Landon described the then Dalai Lama’s rule as “an engine of oppression.” At about that time, another English traveller, Captain W.F.T. O’Connor, observed that “the great landowners and the priests… exercise each in their own dominion a despotic power from which there is no appeal,” while the people are “oppressed by the most monstrous growth of monasticism and priest-craft.” Tibetan rulers “invented degrading legends and stimulated a spirit of superstition” among the common people.

Serf-owners literally possessed the living bodies of their serfs. Since serfs were at their disposal as their private property, they could trade and transfer them, present them as gifts, use them as collateral against debts and exchange them. Before 1951, Lhasa’s downtown area had a population of around 20’000. It was surrounded by some 1’000 tattered tents, homes of poverty-stricken people and beggars. The average life expectancy was only 35.5 years. In Tibet there was not a single school in the modern sense. The enrolment rate of school-age children was less than 2 percent, and the illiteracy rate reached 95 percent.

Over the centuries the Tibetan lords and lamas had seen the Chinese come and go and had enjoyed good relations with them. When the 14th Dalai Lama was first installed in Lhasa, it was with an armed escort of Chinese troops and an attending Chinese minister, in accordance with a centuries-old tradition. What upset the Tibetan lords and lamas in the early 1950s was that these latest Chinese were Communists. It would be only a matter of time, they feared, before the Communists started imposing their collectivist egalitarian schemes upon Tibet.

The issue flared up in 1956-57, when armed Tibetan bands ambushed convoys of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The uprising received extensive assistance from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), including military training, support camps in Nepal, and numerous airlifts. Meanwhile in the US, the American Society for a Free Asia, a CIA-financed front, energetically publicized the cause of Tibetan resistance, with the 14th Dalai Lama’s eldest brother, Thubtan Norbu, playing an active role in that organization. The 14th Dalai Lama’s second-eldest brother, Gyalo Thondup, established an intelligence operation with the CIA as early as 1951. He later upgraded it into a CIA-trained guerrilla unit whose recruits parachuted back into Tibet later in the decade. Many Tibetan commandos and agents whom the CIA dropped into the country were chiefs of aristocratic clans or the sons of chiefs.

Whatever the oppressions introduced by the Chinese after 1959, they did eradicate slavery and the Tibetan serfdom system of unpaid labour. They eliminated the many crushing taxes, started work projects, and greatly reduced unemployment and begging. They established secular schools, thereby breaking the educational monopoly of the monasteries. And they constructed running water and electrical systems. Chinese authorities also claim to have put an end to flogging, mutilation, skinning and amputation as forms of criminal punishment.

They themselves, however, have been charged with acts of brutality by exiled Tibetans. The Chinese authorities admit to such acts, particularly during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution when the persecution of religious beliefs reached an apex in both China and Tibet. Prior to that, after the uprising in 1959, thousands of Tibetans were incarcerated. And during the Mao-era “Great Leap Forward”, forced collectivization and grain farming were imposed on the Tibetan peasantry, sometimes with disastrous effect on production, which led to famine and substantial related causalities.

Then, in the late 1970s, China began relaxing controls and tried to undo some of the damage inflicted during the previous two decades. In 1980, the Chinese government initiated reforms reportedly designed to grant Tibet a greater degree of self-rule and self-administration. Tibetans would now be allowed to cultivate private plots, sell their harvest surpluses, decide for themselves what crops to grow, and keep yaks and sheep. Communication with the outside world was again permitted, and frontier controls were eased to permit some Tibetans to visit exiled relatives in India and Nepal.

By the mid-1980s many of the principal lamas had begun to shuttle back and forth between China and the exiled communities abroad, restoring their monasteries in Tibet and helping to revitalize Buddhism there, including the popular religious practice of worshipping the deity Dorje Shugden. This exchange of religious teaching and movement of clerics across the Chinese border in the Tibetan communities has generated, among the CTA and the 14th Dalai Lama, fears of an accelerating loss of spiritual authority with respect to rival monastic doctrines, leading to the de-facto ban of Dorje Shugden devotion and consequent religious tensions.

In the 1990s, large numbers of Han, the ethnic group comprising over 95 percent of China’s immense population, began migrating into Tibet. Demographic issues in Tibet have always been strongly affected by conflict, migration and family planning. However, the NGO Tibetan Youth Congress has compared China’s migration of Han Chinese to Tibet to the Nazi extermination of Jews. Exiled leaders contend that the Tibetan population was 6 million in 1951 (in contrast of the figures of around 2 million of the 1953 census) and the same a half-century later, because the Chinese government killed al least 1.2 million Tibetans through war, imprisonment, execution, or famine. The figure is cited in Western media, but has been challenged by demographers. The 14th Dalai Lama has accused China of demographic aggression. Tibetan exiles and NGO supporters argue that family planning restrictions contribute to “cultural genocide” and assert that coercive birth control is applied. In reality, according to the 2000 census, there are 6 million Tibetans and 1.5 million non-Tibetans migrants in Tibet; additionally there are 5.4 million Tibetan migrants in Chinese territories outside the Tibetan plateau.

In spite of the demographic factors, Tibetan exiles and NGO supporters argue that the Chinese government carries out development in Tibet with little regard for the views of Tibetans, and that the Chinese Treasury profits exploit the region through state enterprises in sectors such as in mining and timber that operate in Tibet. It is argued that infrastructure in Tibet is constructed to facilitate military operations and the central Chinese government’s exploitation of resources, while most Tibetans, who are peasants and herders, are shut out of development or at least have benefited from it much less than the Han Chinese migrants in Tibetan areas.

In reality, the Chinese government sustains a net loss from Tibetan areas because it heavily subsidizes infrastructure development and government services. It argues that Tibetans are the principal beneficiaries of Tibet’s development, which provides opportunities and facilities open to all, including elements of preferential policies for Tibetans. Government statements emphasize that most Han Chinese in Tibet are temporary migrants engaged in small trade and thus should not be the most significant elements in any assessment of who, among long-term residents of Tibet, benefits from development.

This includes most rural Tibetans, who have experienced significant increases in income levels, education, health care, transport, environmental protection and communications over the past decades. For example the education system has been tailored to the cultural specificities of Tibetans by developing primary level schooling in the Tibetan language and secondary level schooling on a bilingual basis, adding Chinese languages and supplementary English lessons. Another example is the environment: it is argued that it is best preserved using world standards as a baseline, and is a major asset for the development of tourism in the region as well as in the safeguarding of cultural assets.

What would Marco Polo say?

Marco Polo once said of his travels: “I have not told the half of what I saw because I knew I would not be believed”. Tibet seems like a celestial paradise held in chains, but the west’s tendency to romanticise the country’’s Buddhist culture has distorted mainstream Western views. Popular belief is that under the lamas, Tibetans lived contentedly in a spiritual, non-violent culture, uncorrupted by lust or greed: but in reality society was extremely brutal, comparable to the cruelty of the Islamic State which devastated the Middle East societies in recent years. As much as we might wish it to be otherwise, feudal theocratic Tibet was a far cry from the romanticized Shangri-La so enthusiastically promoted by Western human rights NGOs.

What additional tales would Marco Polo have told today? Maybe that Tibet has become a major tourist destination for idealists? Or that only a handful of Tibetans would welcome a return of theocratic and aristocratic clans? That the Shangri-La myth is an ideological projection for offering redemption from the sins of consumerism? Or that the whole purpose of promoting the Shangri-La myth is to trade indulgences like Pope Leo X did in 1517? That maybe one day a Buddhist “Martin Luther” will come and nail a Manifesto on the gates of the Potala palace in Lhasa? Or that the Government of Tibet in Exile is a puppet of the CIA, or a relict of the Cold War? We don’t know, nor do we know what effect his words would have had. As the great navigator himself noted: “I speak and speak, but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear”.

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East Asia

U.S. Violates Its Promises to China; Asserts Authority Over Taiwan

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USA China Trade War

As Werner Rügemer headlined on 28 November 2021 and truthfully summarized the relevant history, “Taiwan: US deployment area against mainland China — since 1945”. However, despite that fact, America did officially issue a “Joint Communique” with China recognizing and acknowledging not only that Taiwan is a province of China but that for America or its allies or any other nation to challenge that historical fact would be unethical.

The U.S. regime hides this crucial historical fact, in order to hoodwink its masses of suckers into assuming to the exact contrary — that Taiwan isn’t a Chinese province. Here is how they do this:

The CIA-edited and written Wikipedia, which blacklists (blocks from linking to) sites that aren’t CIA-approved, is the first source for most people who become interested in what is officially known as the Shanghai Communique of 1972, or the 27 February 1972 “JOINT COMMUNIQUE BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES AND CHINA”. That article, avoids presenting the Communique’s 1,921-word text, but instead provides, in its “Document” section, a mere 428-word very selective, and sometimes misleading, summary of some of the document’s less-important statements, and also fails to provide any link to the document itself, which they are hiding from readers.

The U.S. regime’s Wilson Center does have an article “JOINT COMMUNIQUE BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES AND CHINA”, at which only the document’s opening 286 words are shown, while the rest is veiled and the reader must then do additional clicks in order to get to it.

The U.S. State Department’s history site, does provide the entire 1,921-word document, but under a different title, one that plays down the document’s actual importance, “Joint Statement Following Discussions With Leaders of the People’s Republic of China”.  (If it’s a “Joint Statement,” then whom are the “Leaders of the People’s Republic of China” “jointly” issuing it with — that title for it is not only false, it is plain stupid, not even referring to the U.S, at all.) Consequently, anyone who seeks to find the document under its official and correct title won’t get to see it at the U.S. State Department’s site.

Here are some of the important statements in this document (as shown below that stupid title for it at the State Department’s site):

With these principles of international relations in mind the two sides stated that:

               —progress toward the normalization of relations between China and the United States is in the interests of all countries;

               —both wish to reduce the danger of international military conflict;

               —neither should seek hegemony in the Asia–Pacific region and each is opposed to efforts by any other country or group of countries to establish such hegemony; and

               —neither is prepared to negotiate on behalf of any third party or to enter into agreements or understandings with the other directed at other states.

Both sides are of the view that it would be against the interests of the peoples of the world for any major country to collude with another against other countries, or for major countries to divide up the world into spheres of interest. …

The U.S. side declared: The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves. With this prospect in mind, it affirms the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all U.S. forces and military installations from Taiwan. In the meantime, it will progressively reduce its forces and military installations on Taiwan as the tension in the area diminishes.

The Wikipedia article’s 428-word summary of the “Document” did include parts of the paragraph which started “The U.S. side declared,” but the summary closed by alleging that the document “did not explicitly endorse the People’s Republic of China as the whole of China. Kissinger described the move as ‘constructive ambiguity,’ which would continue to hinder efforts for complete normalization.” How that passage — or especially the entire document — could have been stated with less “ambiguity” regarding “the People’s Republic of China as the whole of China” wasn’t addressed. In fact, the statement that “all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China” includes asserting that the Taiwanese people “maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.” So: the U.S. did agree with that, even signed to it in 1972. If the U.S. refuses to agree with it now, then what was the U.S. agreeing to in that Communique, and under what circumstances does the Communique become null and void for either of the two agreeing Parties to it? When does it stop being binding? Perhaps the document should have added something like “The U.S. Government will never try to break off pieces of China.” But maybe if that were to have been added to it, then the U.S. regime wouldn’t have signed to anything with China. Is the U.S. regime really that Hitlerian? Is this what is ‘ambiguous’ about the document?

In fact, the affirmation that, “The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves. With this prospect in mind, it affirms the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all U.S. forces and military installations from Taiwan.” is now routinely being violated by the U.S. regime. Here’s an example:

One of the leading U.S. billionaires-funded think tanks, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), was co-founded by Kurt Campbell, who is Joe Biden’s “Asia co-ordinator” or “Asia Tsar” with the official title of “National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific.” The other co-founder is Michèle Flournoy, who also co-founded with the current Secretary of State Antony Blinken, WestExec Advisors, which firm’s client-list is secret but generally assumed to be top investors in firms such as Lockheed Martin. That advisory firm’s activities are also secret. 

Perhaps nothing is more profitable than trading on inside information regarding corporations whose main, if not only, sales are to the U.S. Government and its allied governments. Trading on inside information needs to be secret in order to be non-prosecutable. The clients of WestExec Advisors might be extraordinarily successful investors, because they’ve hired people who have ‘the right’ contacts in the federal bureaucracy and so know where your ‘national security’ tax-dollars are likeliest to be spent next.

CNAS issued, in October 2021, “The Poison Frog Strategy: Preventing a Chinese Fait Accompli Against Taiwanese Islands”. It was written as-if the Shanghai Communique hadn’t prohibited this. The presumption there was instead that America and Taiwan would have so much raised the heat against China’s not being picked apart, so as for China to have militarily responded in order to hold itself together; and, then, a stage, “MOVE 2,” would be reached, in which:

The Taiwan and U.S. teams engaged in more direct communication, which aided the U.S. team in framing the crisis. By Move 2, the U.S. team had accepted that using military force to retake Dongsha would be too escalatory and might disrupt the formation of any counter-China coalition. Accordingly, the team reframed the takeover of Dongsha as an opportunity to expose Chinese belligerence and to encourage states to join together to balance against China’s aggressive behavior. The U.S. team’s decision to place U.S. military forces on Taiwan during Move 1 became a key driver for the rest of the game.

Then, 

By Move 3, both the U.S. and Taiwan teams were in difficult positions. The U.S. team did not want to let Chinese aggression go unpunished, both for the sake of Taiwan and within the context of the broader regional competition. At the same time, the U.S. team wanted to show its partners and allies that it was a responsible power capable of negotiating and avoiding all-out war. The Taiwan team was caught in an escalating great-power crisis that threatened to pull Taiwan into a war that it was trying to avoid. The Taiwan team had to balance its relationships and policies with the United States and China while simultaneously spearheading de-escalation. And in the early part of the game, before communication between the United States and Taiwan teams improved, the Taiwan team had, unbeknownst to the U.S. team, set up a back channel with the China team. At the same time the back-channel negotiations were ongoing, the U.S. team was still, in fact, considering additional escalatory action against the China team. …

Toward the end of the game, the U.S. and Taiwan teams’ main strategy was to isolate China diplomatically and economically and garner enough international backing among allies and partners to make that isolation painful. To this end, the Taiwan team focused on pulling in some of its regional partners, such as Japan, while the U.S. team reached out to its NATO allies.9 To avoid unwanted escalation or permanent effects, the U.S. and Taiwan teams limited their offensive military operations to non-kinetic and reversible actions such as cyberattacks and electronic warfare.

Under “Key Takeaways and Policy Recommendations” is:

Given the inherent difficulty of defending small, distant offshore islands like Dongsha, Taiwan and the United States should strive to turn them into what the players called “poison frogs.” This approach would make Chinese attempts to seize these islands so militarily, economically, and politically painful from the outset that the costs of coercion or aggression would be greater than the benefits.

The U.S. regime’s having in 1972 committed itself to there being only “a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves” has somehow now become a license for the U.S. regime to provoke “Chinese attempts to seize these islands” and yet to cause — by America’s constant further provocations and lying — this to be “so militarily, economically, and politically painful from the outset that the costs of coercion or aggression would be greater than the benefits.”

In other words: the U.S. regime expects to portray China as being the aggressor, and the U.S. regime as being the defender — but, actually, of what? It would be the defender of breaking off a piece of China to add it to the U.S. regime’s allies, against an ‘aggressive’ China that opposes America’s violating its own, and China’s, 1972 Joint Shanghai Communique — which prohibits that.

On May 19th, The Hill, one of the U.S. regime’s many propaganda-mouthpieces, headlined “China warns of dangerous situation developing ahead of Biden Asia trip”, and opened: 

China warned the U.S. that President Biden’s visit to East Asia this week could put their relations in “serious jeopardy” if officials play the “Taiwan card” during the trip.

In a phone call with national security adviser Jake Sullivan, China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi warned the U.S. against speaking out on the independent sovereignty of Taiwan, a self-ruling democratic island in the Indo-Pacific that China claims is historically part of the mainland and should be under Beijing’s control.

China doesn’t claim that Taiwan “is historically part of the mainland and should be under Beijing’s control,” but that, just like Hawaii is NOT a part of “the mainland” but IS “under U.S. control,” and NOT “a self-ruling” nation, Taiwan is NOT a part of “the mainland” but IS (not ‘should be’, but IS) under China’s control, and NOT “a self-ruling” nation. Just as there is no “independent sovereignty of Hawaii,” there also is no “independent sovereignty of Taiwan.” How many lies were in that opening? (And this doesn’t even bring in the fact that whereas Hawaii is way offshore of America’s mainland, Taiwan is very close to China’s mainland.)

And how long will the U.S. regime’s constant lying continue to be treated as if that’s acceptable to anything other than yet another dangerously tyrannical regime — a U.S. ally, perhaps?

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East Asia

When Will They Learn: Dealing with North Korea

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On May 11, 2022, the United States called out China and Russia for opposing further action against North Korea in the backdrop of its growing nuclear ambitions. US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, warned that the Security Council “cannot stay silent any longer” as Pyongyang is said to be preparing for its seventh nuclear test which, according to US intelligence, could be conducted as early as this month. The US Ambassador, in her remarks, condemned the two Security Council members stating that their silence in dealing with North Korea had only provided Pyongyang with tacit permission to continue its nuclear proliferation programme. Thomas-Greenfield stressed on the need for employing stricter measures stating that it was high time to encourage restraint in order to pressurise North Korea to stop escalating further and instead come to the negotiating table. Meanwhile both China and Russia have long been against such a policy, instead pushing for the Security Council to ease such measures on North Korea on humanitarian grounds.

The issue of dealing with North Korea has, for the longest time, troubled the International community and the various stakeholders in the Northeast Asian region. Although the United States continues to push for a policy based on retaliation and coercion, it is important to assess the viability of such an approach.

The Case for Sanctions

North Korea is one of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world today. These sanctions date back to the Korean War (1950-53) but were further enforced after North Korea’s nuclear proliferation programme came to the fore.  Implementation of sanctions is argued as a means of coercing the North Korean regime to dismantle its nuclear proliferation programme. Article 41 of the United Nations Charter lays down the provision for sanctions to apply pressure on a state to behave in accordance with the interests of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). As an alternative to using force, the UNSC can implement sanctions to compel compliance for states. It is argued that the economic stress that a state ladened with sanctions is bound to face will eventually lead to a change in its policies, giving way to favourable outcomes. In the case of North Korea, the possibilities of extracting favourable outcomes through sanctions have been explored time and again under various administrations, however this policy has not led to any concrete results so far. While it is true that the various sanctions have placed North Korea in a tough economic state even slowing down its nuclear ambitions, these measures have not led to the dismantling of its nuclear weapons programme. The closed nature of the country means that there is little pressure on the political elite of North Korea to implement economic reforms or dismantle its nuclear programme to gain economic concessions from the international community. Furthermore, considering that North Korea established its nuclear programme to ensure state survival at a time of turbulence which continues to this day given the high security threat posed by the US-South Korea military alliance, the North Korean regime has strong incentive to develop its nuclear weapons programme which has so far ensured regime survival through deterrence.

Inadequacy of monitoring and implementation mechanisms have further contributed to the failure of the sanctions regime. An Institute for Science and International Security report noted that currently 56 countries are evading existing sanctions to supply North Korea with necessary goods along its borders with Russia and China. The evasion of the current UNSC sanctions undermines the overall effectiveness of the sanctions programme.

The Problem with Retaliation

Dealing with an adversary can take the route of retaliation or reconciliation. Retaliation involves the use of coercive diplomacy and strict measures to coerce an adversary into falling in line, hence extracting favourable outcomes. On the other hand, reconciliation involves indulging in diplomatic advances with an adversary to churn out possibilities of peaceful and harmonious relations. The United States has, for long, preferred the route of retaliation in dealing with North Korea. This approach started with the stationing of nuclear weapons and troops in South Korea by the Eisenhower administration at the end of the Korean War and continued as a bipartisan measure under the successive regimes. The Agreed Framework achieved under the Clinton administration in 1994 marked the first diplomatic effort at dismantling the North Korean nuclear weapons programme in its early stages. However, the Framework was abandoned by the Bush administration as both North Korea and the United States failed to follow up on the commitments made under the agreement. In his 2002 State of Union Address, President Bush included North Korea under the infamous axis of evil further aggravating relations between the two nations. The succeeding Obama administration followed a policy of strategic patience, distancing itself from engaging with North Korea while maintaining pressure through sanctions. In a major shift, the Trump administration pursued a policy of engaging with North Korea which, while leading to a series of nuclear threats exchanged between the two countries, culminated in the Hanoi Summit of 2019. The current Biden administration has made its intentions clear of pursuing a policy favouring a “calibrated, practical approach” without necessarily prescribing to the strategic patience of the Obama administration or the “grand bargain” of the Trump era. Over the years, the nature of retaliatory policies has changed, from considering military intervention on the Korean Peninsula to economic sanctions on North Korea, but even in their evolution they have failed to bring any change in the status quo. Although the United States did encourage diplomatic advances under various administrations over the years, like the Six Party Talks of 2003 or the recent Hanoi Summit in 2019, retaliation has been an underlying feature of all negotiations as almost all of them have broken down and fallen prey to mistrust and lack of commitment in the preliminary stages. The failure of such coercive policies can be noted from the fact that North Korea’s nuclear proliferation programme is not only intact to this day but continues to grow at a remarkable pace in the face of economic and military sanctions.

Whether due to the nature of the North Korean state, lack of compliance by the international community or the failure of the UN sanctions regime, the policy of sanctioning North Korea into compliance has failed thus far and the prospects of it succeeding in the future seem very bleak.

A Viable Alternative

The United States has often argued that such retaliatory policies are put in place to bring North Korea to the negotiation table. An assessment of nearly seven decades of dealing with North Korea shows that retaliation has never contributed to bringing about successful negotiations. The highest points in relations with North Korea have all come under administrations that have favoured a policy of reconciliation as opposed to retaliation. The closest North Korea has reached to an agreement on dismantling its nuclear proliferation programme has been through the channels of diplomacy. The Sunshine Policy (1998) and the reconciliatory policies under the administration of former South Korean President Moon Jae-in are a testament that peaceful arrangements on the Korean Peninsula are possible if reconciliation and dialogue are made the norm instead of mistrust and coercion.

In her statement, the US Ambassador has stressed on the urgency of implementing measures in dealing with North Korea. Her concerns are not unfounded. With the appointment of President Yoon Suk-yeol and the conservatives in South Korea, who have favoured a hardliner policy towards the North, it is obvious that North Korea will indulge in nuclear brinkmanship in the coming months which can even go to the extent of a nuclear test as early as this month. Although the urgency is imperative, the measures must be rooted in reconciliation. The United States has to, much like the administrations of former South Korean Presidents Kim Dae Jung and Moon Jae-in, indulge in confidence building measures to achieve sustainable relations with North Korea. Although the diplomatic efforts have so far faced setbacks, they have not been implemented in a spirit of cooperation and mutual trust. To overcome the decades of animosity between the two nations, the United States has to abandon coercion and make way for cooperation as a viable alternative. The failure of retaliatory policies thus far shows that further entertaining such assessments will not lead to any breakthroughs and might well push North Korea to further develop its nuclear weapons programme. Meanwhile, both Sunshine and ‘Moonshine’ policies have shown that North Korea will be willing to cooperate if its primary concerns of security and economic needs are met. Although reaching agreement from the current state of affairs can be a long-drawn process, reconciliation is the only way the emerging threat from North Korea’s nuclear arsenal can be resolved.

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East Asia

U.S. Interests and Priorities: Why Ukraine & Taiwan are Similar Yet Different Geopolitical Situations

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

The February 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia has spearhead a new chapter in the world of international politics. Russian decision to wage unprovoked war with Ukraine has succeeded in dissolving remnants of pro-Russia sentiments across the globe, cultivated in the post-Cold war era. Since the invasion, the reaction of all the major powers in the world, especially the United States, has been closely observed. Amidst burgeoning debate on the future of democracies and liberal internationalism in the wake of strengthened authoritarian regimes, this crisis has been viewed as a warning for the US led order. In the quest to assess the current direction of global politics, a common comparison between Russia-Ukraine crisis and the China-Taiwan situation in East Asia has been made by onlookers. In both the cases, the essential similarity distills to a democratic country being militarily threatened by a regional power on historical grounds and America’s support for the former. US response to the Ukraine crisis has been viewed as a ‘geopolitical compass’ for its possible course of action in a hypothetical scenario of Chinese invasion of Taiwan. As tempting the similarities are in both the cases, Taiwan’s position in American political discourse is vastly different from Ukraine’s due to multiple factors. The reasons behind this difference in America’s policy approach primarily stems within the context of US-China rivalry. The State department’s latest changes on their website regarding US-Taiwan relations further signal America reassessing its long held one China policy. The website omitted the sentence ‘US does not support Taiwan impendence’ and added US relations with Taiwan is ‘guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three U.S.-China Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurance’.

Russian Invasion of Ukraine & American Response

Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the country has swayed between a pro-Russia and a pro-Europe political stance. This struggle reached the brim in 2013, when former Ukrainian President Yanukovych declined the idea of signing an agreement with EU, resulting into mass protests. The backlash eventually led to the forming of a new government. In 2014, Russian personnel captured Crimea, a territory the former believed to be of historical significance. Eventually, in March Crimea’s independence was deliberated in the assembly with a subsequent referendum overwhelmingly supporting union with Russia. The pro Kyiv supporters, EU and US denounced the union as illegal, but ever since Crimea has become a Russian territory. This major political victory for Russia resulted in Kremlin’s continuous support for Pro-Russia factions existing in Donetsk and Lohansk, located in the Eastern region of Ukraine. In the quest to ensure ceasefire, the Minsk Agreement was signed the same year which ultimately granted a special status to Donetsk and Lohansk. Even though peace was maintained in the region since the signing of the agreement, the Ukraine-Russia relations remained tensed.

In December 2021, US intelligence reports claimed that Russia was planning for a potential invasion of Ukraine in early months of 2022, alarming the rest of the world. Satellite images of Russia’s defense buildup around the Ukrainian borders with large portion of military & artillery units in Belarus confirmed the possibilities of an invasion. Ultimately, Russian troops entered Ukraine on February 24 from Russia, Crimea and Belarus with intent to encircle the nation. Further, Russian Duma recognized Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), the two breakaway regions of Ukraine as independent further violating the Minsk Agreement.

Amidst an outpouring of public support, governments have rallied behind Ukraine with US and EU providing military assistance and architecting one of the most stringent sanction regimes to pressure Russia into stopping the ongoing war. Even though the Biden administration reiterated that United States would not be sending troops to fight the Russians, the nation came to a bipartisan consensus to support Ukraine. According to the Defending Ukraine Sovereign Act 2022, US would provide security assistance, back Ukraine’s cyber defenses, boost Ukraine’s interoperability with NATO forces, work closely with regional partners, counter Russian disinformation activities, deepen ties with Baltic states and impose elaborate sanctions. The US authorized military equipments and weapons worth $350 million dollars, largest package in the history of the nation including anti-tank missiles and air defense systems to Ukraine. Financially, US laid out expansive constraints like restrictions on Russian banks, complete sanctions on Nord Stream 2, Russian Direct Investment Fund, VTB Bank, export controls on oil and gas etc. To showcase America’s unflinching support to Ukraine and the crisis unfolding in Europe, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J Austin made a high security visit to Kyiv in April 2022 and met President Zelensky and his officials. America presented an intention to contribute more than $713 million in foreign military financing for Ukraine, apart from the return of American diplomats at the earliest to further facilitate humanitarian efforts.

As the events in Ukraine unfolded, the debates surrounding America’s credibility and response to Ukraine crisis gained traction. Even as the West’s unified response to Russian aggression has been welcomed, understanding American interest vis-à-vis Ukraine-Russia war and its judgment to resist unilateral decision making becomes imperative. Firstly, avoiding a World War III like situation that involves multiple countries is of top priority for the Biden administration. With Putin ordering Russian nuclear weapons on ‘high alert’ as a response to barrage of sanctions, the cries for de-escalation have become louder. In this regard, Washington’s decision to deny American participation in the war not only restates US’ post 9/11 war fatigue but is also an attempt to avoid usage of weapons of mass destruction by parties involved. Even as fringe of partisan voices and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have lobbied for US to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine which would commit American and NATO forces to bring down any Russian plane that enters the zone, Biden administration’s resistance to this pressure signals American foresight.

Secondly, the divergence of interest between US and Ukraine stems from the fact that Ukraine has never been in America’s core policy calculations, which is not the case for Russia. At the same time, American decision to withdraw from ABM treaty (2002), Open Skies treaty (2020), INF treaty (2020) and steady NATO expansion since 1991 has made Russia insecure. Furthermore due to Ukraine’s close proximity to Russia, America’s past assurances of making Ukraine a NATO member has been viewed as American encroachment in Russian sphere of influence, a matter of national security for Kremlin.  Thirdly, even though U.S has no immediate interest in Ukraine, resisting Russian win ‘at all cost’ is a wider test of American commitment at maintaining the current rules based liberal order. Beyond the narrative of ‘credibility dilemma’, the Ukraine crisis has yet again thrown light on the role of US as a security guarantor to states in various regions. This role becomes more complex for the US when dealing with allies and partners in East Asia which has been undergoing rapid geopolitical shifts.

Tensions in Taiwan Strait and the US Factor

In 2021, Taiwan (Republic of China) underwent one of the worst years of Chinese incursion in their defense zone. The situation has only become dire, with China (People’s Republic of China) sending a record number of warplanes in Taiwanese defense zone in a single day in January 2022. Expert analysis has echoed concerns of a possible war like situation, a catastrophic scenario for the regional security. The relations have especially become strained since 2016 when Taiwan elected Tsai Ing Wen, a pro democracy leader. Her reelection victory in 2020, rebuked Chinese pressure for possible reunification. Since 2012, China has witnessed a rise of nationalism, signaling country’s growing ambitions post the economic success. Out of the many national agendas, resolving the “Taiwan matter” has gained undivided attention from the Communist Party of China. Leaving the past century of humiliation behind, the new China has found itself on the path to seek great power status and ushering the Chinese Century. However for Beijing, reunification with Taiwan is critical for fulfilling the ‘Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation’, whether through appeasement or coercion. The dwindling cross-strait relations and China’s grey zone activities have posed new challenges for the regional power balance. Within the context of growing US-China rivalry, the Taiwan crisis has increasingly been seen as a possible flashpoint.

Historically, there have been instances when America being entrapped in a war with China over the island nation seemed inevitable. For example in the 1950s, PRC bombed Jinmen (Quemoy) and Mazu islands controlled by ROC. United States considered vast array of policy options including nuclear weapons to resist PRC’s control over these islands. Even though ultimately PRC approached US for negotiations to ease the situation due to Soviet pressure, this incident evidenced the risk of miscalculation in US-China relations. However, deteriorating security in Taiwan straits over the last two decades amidst the backdrop of growing anti-China sentiments in American political discourse across ideological spectrum sets apart the current situation from the past. Particularly, as American views on China have witnessed critical shifts in the post Trump era and as US-China rivalry has crystallized in various domains, Taiwan has further been elevated in US’ Asia strategy. America’s China policy reshaped under President Donald Trump as the belief in China’s economic success at the expense of US became a widely accepted phenomenon in Washington DC. The Trump administration levied tariffs on Chinese products and engaged in a trade war, though whether it benefited the US is open for debate. America also launched the Indo Pacific strategy framework with the aim to refocus America’s Asia policy following China’s ascendance to power and regional security developments.

As US-China relations hit rock bottom, US-Taiwan relations reached new heights during the Trump presidency. Removing past ‘self imposed restrictions’ and developing ties with Taipei beyond political rhetoric, US’ traditional stance of one-China policy has repeatedly come into question by Beijing since President Trump took office. When Trump and President Tsai Ing Wen had telephonic conversation after former’s presidential victory, America bypassed a longstanding diplomatic protocol. Even though later White House agreed to abide by one-China policy, President Trump succeeded in raising doubts about America’s likely deviation from this policy in the future if relations with China continue to sour. Some of the most important developments in US-Taiwan relations occurred during Trump presidency like: allowing senior officials to visit Taiwan (Taiwan Travel Act of 2018), increased sales of advanced weapons, supporting Taiwan’s diplomatic ties with states around the world (Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019) and pushing for Taiwan’s greater participation in international organizations & providing stimulus package (Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019).

President Joe Biden continued to build on this momentum by inviting Taiwanese ambassador to the inaugural ceremony. The hopes for any recalibration in US-China relations have been thwarted as officials from the administration have maintained a hard-line approach. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterating ‘terrible consequences’ if China invades Taiwan; maintaining ties with China being the ‘biggest geopolitical test’ for US and; Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks recognizing China as a ‘pacing challenge for the US military’ paints the seriousness with which Washington has embraced the reality of great power competition.

In the face of China’s overwhelming number of reserve forces and modernized military apparatus, Taiwan’s weak tactical abilities have been a point of concern for the US. Over various administrations, America has been sending small batches of troops as low-key exchanges to prepare the island nation. However, as Chinese air and maritime activities in the region near Taiwan have exponentially increased, U.S has sent special operations and marine unit to train the Taiwanese forces in an effort to heighten their defense capabilities. The precedence of sending special operation troops has been set by President Trump, which has been sustained by President Biden.

Impetus for US Support of Taiwan

As a symbolic gesture, President Biden sent a delegation of former security and foreign officials from Bush and Obama administration to Taiwan to reaffirm American commitment to the island nation as Ukraine crisis intensified. The flurry of diplomatic exchanges between US and Taiwan in the weeks after Russian invasion of Ukraine prompts at the graveness of Taipei’s security needs, China’s political clarity on this matter and America’s determination to maintain status quo. As early as 2021 when reports of a possible Russian invasion were being discussed in policy circles, the Biden administration was quick to re-emphasize American ‘vow to protect Taiwan’ even though officially US remains committed to the policy of strategic ambiguity. The similarities between Ukraine and Taiwan’s geopolitical situation are quite a few. Both the states have powerful neighbors with nuclear capabilities, share history with Russia and `China respectively, incline towards the West (specifically the US), have adopted democracy from past few decades and have developed a unique national identity. However, geopolitically their significance in American Grand strategy vastly differs. There are primarily four factors that have led to greater attention on Taiwan over various US administrations.

First, Asia is the priority region for the US, especially since the Obama administration. The pivot to Asia, rebalance to Asia and the Indo-Pacific strategy are recent American efforts to streamline their focus on affairs of the region. The latest Indo Pacific strategy report states US determination to strengthen ‘long term commitment’ towards Asia and maintaining security interests across the region including Taiwan straits. Even though Europe and transatlantic ties remain critical, Asia remains the region of significance for the US foreign policy.

Second, the US-Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 has been the raison d’etre for America’s approach towards Taiwan. This has been fundamental in initiating legislative and executive decision making on Taipei, which includes defense and economic issues. The act has been the guiding principle behind America’s resistance ‘to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan’. Taiwan Relations Act makes Taipei an exception, unlike Kyiv.

Third, supporting Taiwan is closely associated to the American alliance structure in Asia. American presence in East Asia through military alliances has been critical in maintaining balance of power, especially amidst the rise of China as region’s hegemonic power. The US role of being a security guarantor persists more than ever for the stability of the region. Therefore, American compromise on Taiwan’s security could gravely impact the psychology of alliance framework with allies like Japan and South Korea, detrimental for US influence in Asia.

And lastly, Taiwan’s transformation from an authoritarian regime into a thriving democracy with a distinct national identity has made the possibility for reunification more complicated. The island nation has undergone alterations in political identification and cultural orientation from past few decades as majority of the public associates to a Taiwan centered identity in comparison to dual identity of being Chinese and Taiwanese. The severity of democratic recession and the onslaught of authoritarian regimes across the globe with Ukraine as the latest victim highlights the American stakes vis-à-vis Taiwan. In this regard, President Biden’s decision to invite Taiwan at the Summit of Democracy in 2021 is a step towards Taiwan’s greater integration in international community.

Conclusion

Hypothetically, if and when the reunification of China and Taiwan happens, the political path adopted by both the parties would matter more to America than its power of influence over Taipei. The greater the probability of China using military means to reunify the two states and in process violating the hallmarks of international norms and values exist, the closer this matter would feature in the ambit of US national priorities. As US and China have embarked towards a perilous phase in bilateral relations, the spillover of their rivalry and divergence of opinion on critical issues will persist.  Even though the scenario of America sending troops to Taiwan in the wake of a possible Chinese invasion remains slim or at least debatable, the strategic value of this crisis would reign supreme for White House while making critical decisions. Losing Taiwan to China via coercion would considerably extinguish America’s quest to repair its image abroad and its ability to maintain a rules based order in the Indo Pacific. Henceforth, considering that China is the ‘only country with the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system’ Taiwan matter has carved a distinct position in US’ larger foreign policy calculations.

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